The girls are home from the Gaeltacht

Sun, surf and some Irish

Angelina Jolie. photograph: reuters/neil hall

Angelina Jolie. photograph: reuters/neil hall


The girls are home from the Gaeltacht. Iníon a hAon and Iníon a Dó got good weather, talked for Ireland, did a bit of surfing (there was no surfing in my day) and now are tweeting and texting people who, when I was young, would have sent you a postcard or a letter. (You remember getting those, don’t you?)

It was nice to see them home from Donegal after three weeks and a day. Still, they were playing it cool when daddy arrived to pick them up from the bus. I noticed – not without a little jealousy – one teenage boy giving his dad a big hug. No chance of a PDA from my cailíní, however. They just put the bags in the car and waved goodbye to their friends – “Slán! Slán!” – and off we went.

They had their stories about who did what, about everyone crying at the Céilí Mór – “even na buachaillí” – about what people were wearing at the Fancy Dress Céilí – some of the “buachaillí” were dressed as girls – about watching the World Cup with the “buachaillí” and all the girls supporting Argentina because it was easier to wear blue and white than to match Germany’s colours. In short, they had fun – which is how it should be – and learnt a bit more Irish. (They certainly know the word “buachaillí”.)

Like many parents who speak Irish, you hope your children take an interest but worry that you might put them off if you are too strident. (Contrary to what the Irish haters think, I, like so many other parents, am raising children, not Storm Troopers of the Irregular Verbs Division.) In fact, my little corner of the planet is not well know for Irish – the language died out around the beginning of 1800 – but I speak to the girls and they are learning it at school. It’s something rather than nothing and that, I am afraid, is my approach to these things. To read the comments that accompany the never-ending language debate in Ireland, one would think that Irish-speaking parents send them children over the top in a mad futile charge against the pill-boxes of English, irrespective of the cost.

Not so. I suspect most of us are happy with something rather than nothing when it comes to the language. Any little encouragement gives us a chance to say: “Look, children, did you hear that Brad and Angelina are going to Oideas Gael to research their next film about how a cell of Gaeilgeoirí plot to take over the world? They are calling the movie, Mr and Mrs Mac Gabhann.”

Something rather than nothing. That is why many people get so annoyed with smug Government statements about the language; about how ministers of state are a bit rusty but can be sent off on a course to begin their journey to enlightenment. We know all about courses – we are on that journey and are paying for that journey and saving up for the next journey. (What mugs, eh? Practising what we preach and actually paying for it out of our own pocket! A career in politics does not beckon!)

Our children speak English – we just want them to have the chance to speak a bit of Irish and to know that speaking that bit of Irish is a “good thing”. We want them to have an active cultural life as well as the one that involves twitter, downloads and dancing to MTV. They have all that already. We just want to give them something extra, to show them a little corner of Ireland that still exists, just about, in An Ghaeltacht.

Anyone who visits the Gaeltacht knows that the physical sign that marks the border between Gaeltacht and Galltacht is misleading. Passing those famous “An Ghaeltacht” markers does not mean that you have crossed into a linguistic territory in the way in which you might cross from France to Germany. No, the Gaeltacht is altogether more porous. You will find native speakers but it might take you a bit of time. They are there, however, out in the fields and hidden up little roads and, if you are lucky, you make an acquaintance or two that stands you in good stead for the rest of your life.

That said, I was not sending the girls to the Gaeltacht with orders to put a GPS tracer on every native speaker they met. Yes, there is the linguistic element – that they hear something rather than nothing. And they did and they learnt something. One got her Silver Fáinne and is “tots sásta” and one got a couple of gold stars for effort and is happy with that for the moment. They enjoyed the course, made new friends and met people from places as far away as Dublin. (Dubliners in the Donegal Gaeltacht sounds like a Paul Durcan poem.) They are both using more Irish than they did before they left and are, at the time of writing, happy to go back next year.

Something rather than nothing.

I know that 30 years ago when I began to learn Irish seriously I had to go to the Gaeltacht. I am glad I had the chance. I am glad that my children have had the chance. I would like to think that in another 30 years – if the good Lord spares me – there might still be a Gaeltacht. I would like to think that there will be another generation of buachaillí and cailíní who get to know the kindness of a bean an tí; who get to dress up at a Céilí Bréagéadaí; who get to dance Tonntaí Thoraí in the sight of the island itself; who cry at the Céilí Mór; who walk home with friends in the dark night with all the stars shining in the sky.

Many of us have been on the journey that Joe McHugh is beginning. No one would wish him anything but good luck. Let us hope he gets something rather than nothing out of it – but let the Government remember also that we are not the ones letting them down by not speaking Irish, they are the ones letting us down.


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